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Cujo (1983)

DVD Released: 9/25/2007

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/20/2007

Today, Stephen King is a household name, if not an American institution. His books still sell well, he has regular column in Entertainment Weekly, and his books are still adapted into film. (The recent 1408 was a nice success for King.) But, all of this can't match the popularity which King enjoyed in the early 1980s. His books were all the rage, and Hollywood was anxious to bring any of his works to the screen. There was a period where it seemed as if a new Stephen King movie opened every month. During this span, Cujo came to the screen, proving that King didn't always dwell in the supernatural realm.

Cujo introduces us to the Trenton family. Five-year old Tad (Danny Pintauro) is convinced that a monster lives in his closet, despite the assurances of his parents. Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) works in advertising and is often pre-occupied with his latest account. Donna (Dee Wallace) is a housewife who has become involved with a local handyman, Steve (Christopher Stone). When Vic has trouble with his car, he's referred to a mechanic who lives in the country. While visiting the Camber homestead to have the car repaired, the Trenton's meet Cujo, a huge St. Bernard who, in the opening scene, we've seen be bitten by a bat. The Trenton's happy little family comes crashing down when Vic learns of Donna's affair on the same day that his biggest account falls into turmoil. With deep animosity hanging in the air, Vic leaves on a business trip to salvage his firm. Donna's car has been acting up, so she decides to take it to Mr. Camber, not knowing that the family has left on vacation. The car dies on Donna just as she gets to the Camber house. Once there, she and Tad discover Cujo, now fully rabid and bloodthirsty. Unable to travel, they are now trapped by the insane dog.

The films based on Stephen King stories which appeared in the early 80s varied wildly in quality from the lackluster Silver Bullet to the impressive The Dead Zone. Cujo falls somewhere in the middle -- it's not awful, but it only succeeds on a certain level.

One trait of Cujo which certainly stands out is that this is a film which works best (and arguably only) on the first viewing, especially if the viewer knows very little about the story. I can see the narrative structure of the film being very disarming to someone who didn't know what the movie was about. We open with a dog being bitten by a bat. Then, the movie focuses on this small-town family who is going through several problems. Suddenly, the dog shows up again, but only momentarily, and then, it's back on the family. It's not until about the 45-minute mark that Cujo goes full-blown bonkers and begins to attack people. But, it's still not clear how the family is involved, until Donna and Tad finds themselves trapped by the dog. Then, Cujo becomes a siege movie, as Donna tries to figure out how she and Tad will survive.

What we really have here is two movies rolled into one. The first half of the film is almost a melodrama, as it focuses on Donna's affair and her unhappiness. It's the second part of Cujo which can be considered a horror film, as the rabid dog mercilessly attacks everyone in his path. And the last 40 minutes of the film is very tense and unrelenting, as Donna and Tad's situation becomes more and more desperate. The movie doesn't pull any punches and there's violence dealt towards man and beast. Those seeing these scenes for the first time will no doubt cringe and wince as the film races towards its violent finale.

However, upon closer inspection (or subsequent viewings), we see that Cujo only works in fits and starts. The tale of the Trenton family may be full of symbolism (it certainly is in the novel), but it grows tiresome after a while. And if they can afford a Jaguar and that big house, why is Donna driving that crappy Pinto which died on her? Even those unfamiliar with the plot know that the movie is about a killer dog and it takes a long time for that part of the film to start. Granted, once Cujo begins to attack, the movie has plenty of mad-doggy scenes. But, these scenes, for all of their raw intensity and savagery, become monotonous after a while, and the tension and anxiety turns into frustration as we plead for Donna to do something.

Cujo is certainly a mixed-bag (or a mixed breed, if you will). 25 years later, the last third of the film still packs a punch, and those who are sensitive to movies in which children are in peril may find that portion of the film difficult to stomach. The movie has some good jump scares and there's no denying that dog attack sequences are very well-done and have a visceral effect on the viewer. Yet, the dichotomous nature of the film screws up the pacing, and those who came for doggy carnage may become restless in the first half of the film. Cujo certainly isn't the worst Stephen King movie ever made (I'm looking at you, Graveyard Shift), but it may disappoint those looking for the typical unique King experience.

Cujo takes a bite out of DVD courtesy of Lionsgate. This new 25th Anniversary Edition replaces the previous DVD releases from 2000 & 2001. On this release, the film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This transfer, liked the film, is a mixture. The opening scene, with Cujo running through a field, looks great, as the image is clear, and the colors stand out. But, some later scenes show some grain and look flat. The image is free from any overt defects from the source material. Some scenes show a notable lack of detail and there is some artifacting at times. Given the age of the film, the transfer is acceptable, but it has its flaws. The DVD has a Dolby Digital mono audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Despite being mono, Cujo's growls come through loud and clear during the attack scenes. There were some minor problems with the dynamic range here, as the dialogue would become somewhat faint at times.

The Cujo DVD contains two extra features. There is an AUDIO COMMENTARY from director Lewis Teague and a 42-minute featurette entitled, "Dog Days: The Making of Cujo", in which Teague is prominently featured. The problem here lies in the fact that if you check out both, you're going to hear a lot of the same information twice. Beyond that, the commentary is good, as Teague brings back many recollections about the making of the film. He praises the cast and has many asides about his work with cinematographer Jan de Bont. "Dog Days" offers comments from Teague, Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, the film's producers, the composer, and Stephen King biographer Douglas Winter. This featurette explores the casting and the characters, the locations, the look of the film, the dog training, the editing, and the music.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long